Although most of us are familiar with the normal categorization of our foods, it’s not infrequent to end up being surprised by something. For example, when did you first learn that tomatoes are a fruit? What about peppers, pumpkins, eggplants, olives, and cucumbers? Those are just a few of the other “vegetables” that count as fruits.
So where do mushrooms fall? We certainly consider them part of our “five a day” efforts, but are they a fruit or a vegetable or neither?
Are mushrooms vegetables? Although mushrooms are classed as a vegetable in terms of nutrition (they count toward your five a day), they aren’t actually a fruit or a vegetable. Mushrooms are considered a fungus. They do not contain chlorophyll and they do not count as a plant at all. We still cook and eat them with other vegetables, but they belong to a kingdom and a category entirely their own.
What Makes Something a Vegetable?
Vegetables are generally considered the edible part of the plant, whatever that may be. For example, the roots of carrot plants are the part we eat, and thus a carrot is considered a vegetable. The bulb of an onion is the part we eat, and this is the part that we call a vegetable.
We further categorize things as fruits when they contain all the parts of the flower, including the ovary and the seeds. That is why a tomato is a fruit – along with avocados, cucumbers, and some of the other surprising fruits. They are the flower and the seeds.
Mushrooms do not fall into either category. Fungi don’t produce flower heads or seeds (they produce spores instead) and so they cannot be fruits. While they are an edible, they aren’t part of a plant, which also prevents them from being technically classed as a vegetable.
Fungi don’t operate in the same way that plants do. They don’t get their energy from the sun and they don’t produce chlorophyll. Instead, they take the food they need by breaking down other matter. Different types of fungi feed on different things (e.g. rotting wood), but none of them depend on the sun for their energy, and they mostly grow underground.
They do not have leaves or flowers, and they are not plants. They are so different from everything else and so varied and numerous that they have been given their own classification. They are neither a plant nor an animal, and they aren’t a vegetable technically speaking.
Why Do We Still Consider Mushrooms as Vegetables?
Despite that, we all count them as vegetables, and you might be wondering why. The biggest reason is probably convenience! They provide us with many of the nutrients that we get from other vegetables, so it’s easiest for us to class them as a vegetable when it comes to cooking them.
If, for example, you were grocery shopping and mushrooms weren’t included in the vegetable section, where would you expect them to be? They aren’t an animal, a dairy product, a cereal, or a loaf of bread, that’s for sure! While there are many kinds of fungi, few supermarkets carry a wide enough range to justify a whole section just for mushrooms.
Additionally, it’s easy to store mushrooms in the same conditions as most other vegetables. They benefit from cool, dark surroundings, and don’t need to be frozen, but also shouldn’t be stored at room temperature.
We also cook them with other vegetables. You might fry them with onions, chop them into a stew, steam them and add them to a pasta dish, or many other things – but often, they will be cooked alongside vegetables, rather than independently.
That means that it’s easier to put them with the other vegetables, so you can select them according to the other things you buy, and find them easily.
So, while they may not botanically count as a vegetable because they don’t have a stem, seeds, roots, or a requirement for sunlight, they are counted as vegetables in terms of the nutrients they provide and the ways in which we use them. At the end of the day, the labels we use are intended for convenience, so mushrooms are probably going to remain “vegetables” for the foreseeable future.
What Counts as a Fungi?
You might now be wondering what characteristics make something a fungus. In short, fungi must get the nutrients they need from decaying matter or living plants. They have a large underground system of branching threads, and rarely come above ground – so we only see mushrooms occasionally, although they are always there.
We sometimes refer to mushrooms as the “fruiting bodies” of a fungus. That is because, in many ways, the mushroom we eat serves a similar purpose to a plant’s fruit. It is a formation that protrudes from the main organism, and in a fungus, it produces spores, which serve the same purpose as seeds – spreading the organism’s offspring further afield.
Many people think that mushrooms are actually closer to fruits than vegetables because of this, and that may be the case. The part of the organism that we eat serves a similar purpose to a fruit.
However, there isn’t much reason to start calling mushrooms fruits – it is still not a plant. Furthermore, as mentioned, the labels we use are for convenience, which is why we call bell peppers vegetables even though, botanically, they are fruits. We think of fruits as sweet and juicy, and we usually use them for desserts.
It wouldn’t make sense to use the word fruit for a mushroom, even if they share some similarities. It makes more sense to refer to mushrooms as vegetables, despite the fact that they aren’t. Really, it all boils down to the convenience of everyday language, rather than the botanically correct terms for these things. How we use them, rather than what they are, determines what we call them.
Overall, therefore, mushrooms are not vegetables or fruits. They are an entirely separate category and do not match up to any of the existing ones we use. However, for the sake of simplicity, we refer to them as vegetables because we store them with vegetables and we cook them with vegetables.
Mushrooms might not be vegetables, but they count as one of your five a day, and they offer plenty of important nutrients!